O26 Intrigue: Eight Storylines on Opening Weekend…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine & Adam Stillman on November 14th, 2014

Basketball is nearly upon us! Here are eight O26 storylines to keep an eye on during the opening weekend of hoops:

Does VCU seize the opportunity against Tennessee without Briante Weber?

VCU will have to attack Tennessee without Briante Weber. (Daniel Sangjib Min / Times Dispatch)

VCU will have to attack Tennessee without Briante Weber. (Daniel Sangjib Min/Times Dispatch)

The Rams should be one of the better teams in the country this season, and they will have several marquee opportunities to prove it before the calendar flips to 2015 – opportunities not only to justify their top-15 ranking, but also to better position themselves come Selection Sunday. The first of those chances will be tonight against Tennessee in the Veterans Classic in Annapolis. The fact that the Vols, a decent-but-not great SEC squad, have serious questions at point guard would normally be good news for VCU and its disruptive pressure defense. But without Briante Weber in the lineup – the senior guard is serving a one-game suspension – the Rams are down their peskiest defender and a guy who’s on track to break the NCAA’s all-time steals record. HAVOC will press on (literally), but keep an eye on whether Weber’s absence enables Tennessee to limit its turnovers, make this more of a half-court game, and minimize VCU’s easy transition buckets. The last thing Shaka Smart’s group wants is to drop a nationally-televised opener (6:30 PM ET, CBSSN) against a beatable power-conference opponent.

Wichita State’s inexperienced frontcourt against New Mexico State

Everybody knows about the Shockers’ talented backcourt. Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton make up possibly the best trio of guards in the nation. The frontcourt? That’s a completely different story. Leading scorer and rebounder Cleanthony Early is now in the NBA, and rotation players Chadrack Lufile and Kadeem Coleby are gone as well. The only returning frontcourt player for Wichita State is Darius Carter (7.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG). He’ll need to have a huge year for the Shockers if they want to go anywhere in March. Everybody else is a question mark, as freshmen and JuCo transfers will fill the remaining void. Freshman Rashard Kelly is expected to get the starting nod, while Tevin Glass, Zach Brown and Bush Wamukota should compete for minutes. The inexperienced frontcourt will be tested early, as the Shockers open with New Mexico State, which isn’t exactly lacking in the height department. Tshilidzi Nephawe, a 6’10” senior who averaged 11.1 PPG, 7.8 RPG and 1.4 BPG, and 7’3″ freshman Tanveer Bhullar, younger brother of the monstrous Sim, will pose quite the challenge for the Shockers. It should be a fun watch, and could tell us a lot about Wichita State’s prospects going forward.

MAAC has early chances to prove itself 

Non-conference play can either make or break a one-bid league’s RPI and have enormous influence on the eventual seed of its NCAA Tournament representative. The better a conference performs against outside opponents, the more quality wins available once league play begins. Keeping that in mind, the MAAC has a great opportunity to boost its profile right of the bat this weekend, with its top four teams each having winnable games against high-quality opponents. Iona plays host to Horizon League contender Cleveland State; Manhattan goes on the road to Florida State; Siena travels to Amherst to take on UMass; and Quinnipiac takes on intra-city foe Yale, pegged to finish second in the Ivy League. Four-for-four seems doubtful – especially considering Siena and Manhattan will be substantial underdogs – but if the conference can win a couple of these contests, it will go a long way.

BYU’s Tyler Haws lights it up and Kyle Collinsworth returns from injury

A healthy Kyle Collinsworth is good news for BYU. (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

A healthy Kyle Collinsworth is good news for BYU. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

You like offense? You can’t go wrong keeping an eye on BYU’s high-powered offense taking on Long Beach State tonight. For starters, the Cougars are coming off a season where they averaged 84.2 PPG, good for third in the nation. Throw in Kyle Collinsworth, a 6’6″ guard who averaged 14.0 PPG and 8.1 RPG last season before tearing his ACL in the WCC championship game. It’ll be interesting to see how healthy that knee really is, and if he is back to his old self. But the main attraction? That would undoubtedly be Tyler Haws, a sharpshooter who might be the favorite to lead the nation in scoring this year. The 6’5″ senior guard poured in 23.2 PPG last season while shooting 40.4 percent from three-point range. With Matt Carlino off to Marquette, the onus will be on Haws to light it up even more. We can’t wait to see Haws do his best Jimmer Fredette impression this season, starting with LBSU.

Who is scoring San Diego State’s points?

Few players were more important to their team’s offensive success last season than Xavier Thames, who led the Aztecs in scoring and assists and took roughly 30 percent of their shots while on the floor. When the guard sputtered, San Diego State did likewise; four of his eight least-efficient offensive performances were in (or perhaps resulted in) losses. Now that Thames is gone, who steps up as Steve Fisher’s go-to scorer? The answer likely rests with either Winston Shepard or wing Dwayne Polee II, who were the second- and third-leading scorers for the team in 2013-14, respectively. Shepard (11.6 PPG) has worlds of talent and seems like the natural choice after attempting 56 percent more shots than Polee last season, but he had turnover problems and was awful from behind the arc (16% 3FG). Polee surged at the end of the year, scoring in double figures in each of the team’s final five games, but has yet to prove he can do it consistently. Tonight’s home opener against Cal State Northridge might give us an important glimpse into where the production will come from.

Can Jalan West go off against a high-major school?

Northwestern State's Jalen West will have a chance to shine against Texas A&M. (Photo: Gary Hardamon/Special to The Shreveport Times)

Northwestern State’s Jalen West will have a chance to shine against Texas A&M. (Gary Hardamon/Special to The Shreveport Times)

The Northwestern State guard knows a thing or two about scoring the basketball. The junior averaged 19.4 PPG while hitting 40.9 percent of his treys a year ago. Texas A&M knows a thing or two about preventing opponents from scoring the basketball. The Aggies ranked 29th in the nation by allowing only 62.8 PPG last year, and sat 33rd in defensive efficiency (96.3), according to Ken Pomeroy. Which one gives? West is by no means a household name, but the man has proven he can play. And he’s done it against the big boys, too. Here is how he fared against them in 2013-14: Auburn (30 points), LSU (seven points), Memphis (15 points), Baylor (26 points). And here is how he did in 2012-13: LSU (14 points), Texas A&M (16 points), Oklahoma (13 points), Arkansas (10 points), Florida (five points). So in nine career games against high-major competition, West has averaged a strong 15.1 PPG. That’s nothing to sneeze at. West led Northwestern State to a win over Auburn last year, and also helped the Demons push Baylor to overtime. Can he orchestrate another big performance that leads to an early-season upset?

Alan Williams enters The Phog

UC Santa Barbara travels to Kansas tonight, which means that Alan Williams, one of our preseason O26 First Team All-Americans, gets to body up with some seriously talented frontcourt players. The 6’8’’ forward is well regarded and has gained increased notoriety since scoring 21.4 PPG and 11.5 RPG in 2013-14, but now he’ll face paint behemoths like Cliff Alexander and Jamari Traylor in one of college basketball’s most hostile environments. Seems daunting. Then again, Williams did average 22.6 points and 9.6 rebounds against high-major opponents last season, including a 23-point, eight-rebound outing versus UCLA. He has proven capable against all levels of competition, and even if the Gauchos lose big, we expect mid-major hoops’ best big to play big.

Who springs an unexpected upset?

This opening weekend actually offers a sneaky good slate of games where we could see a handful of O26 teams play the big boys down to the wire. But will any of them actually be able to pull off the upset? We’ve touched on a couple of the games elsewhere in this post (UCSB vs. Kansas, Northwestern State vs. Texas A&M), so I’ll leave those alone (although we do think the latter will be a close game). Elsewhere, there are bunch of O26 league favorites taking on ranked teams or those expected to fight for an NCAA Tournament spot. UNC takes on both North Carolina Central and Robert Morris this weekend. Temple hosts American. Drexel visits Colorado. William and Mary plays Florida, North Dakota State takes on Texas, Manhattan travels to Florida State and Coastal Carolina pays a visit to UCLA. All very intriguing games. But there is one we have our eye on ahead of the others. That’s Wofford playing at Stanford. Yes, Stanford is coming off a Sweet Sixteen berth and returns star guard Chasson Randle and quality big men Anthony Brown and Stefan Nastic. But Wofford brings back their top seven scorers, led by Karl Cochran’s 15.7 PPG. There is something to be said for a mid-major team coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance that returns everybody of note. That will be the upset special, Wofford over Stanford.

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